Why PS VR (probably) won't repeat Sony's history of failed tech

I'm excited for PlayStation VR, in a way that I just can't get excited for the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive. The latter two are way out of my price range, and my PC would need a $300 graphics card just to be viable anyway. The PS VR, on the other hand (head?) appears to offer similar capabilities at a fraction of the cost while using my perfectly-capable PS4, without having to dumb down the tech (like Google Cardboard, Samsung's Gear VR, or other smartphone-based virtual reality half-steps). I already have the required PS4 camera, and Sony's got a line-up of games that actually excites me (you basically had me at “Rez Infinite”) - 100ft Robot Golf and RIGS look like a ton of fun.

But there's one thought that nags at my mind, one caveat that keeps me from going all-in, and it's a big one: Sony currently has a terrible track record in supporting its peripherals and spin-off platforms. It's a problem with any accessory, really; you want companies to make games that take advantage of it, but if there aren't enough people out there who own it, there's no point in making those games. That's the big question mark on virtual reality right now - will it take off well enough that it effectively becomes its own platform with a massive install base, or will these headsets be the Virtual Boy all over again? Sony especially has a history of coming up with inventive products, developing a handful of titles for them, then forgetting them completely. How bad is it? Let's take a look.

PocketStation

Released: January 1999 (only in Japan)

The Sega Dreamcast is famously remembered for its memory card/digital display hybrid VMUs, but the Sony PlayStation had something very similar with the PocketStation, releasing in Japan a few months after Sega's console did. It was wildly popular when it released, and several dozen PlayStation games contain extra features and minigames that make use of the PocketStation's LCD screen and miniature buttons.

There's only one problem: it never left Japan. Western audiences were teased at length about the possibility of it coming over - it was prominently featured in the instruction manual for Final Fantasy 8, which explained how PocketStation owners would have their own portable chocobo to raise - but it never panned out. The device was discontinued in 2002, as Sony had all but moved on to the PlayStation 2. A special Vita app added PocketStation functionality back to digital PlayStation games on the device - but like the PocketStation itself, this app was only released in Japan.

PS2 HDD

Released: July, 2001 (Japan), March, 2004 (North America)

The PS2 network adapter was a neat little device that allowed you to play a surprisingly decent amount of games online, and it was released at a time when online console gaming was still in its infancy, so the fact it got supported as much as it did was impressive. The HDD add-on, however, was a different story.

$99 got you 40GB of sweet, precious hard drive space, and the promise of games that would be able to use it to cache data to improve load times, or allow for additional downloaded content to be stored. The reality was far less impressive: only 35 games used the hard drive in North America (it didn't even come to Europe), and of those, Final Fantasy 11 was the only major game to truly require it. So unless you had plans to play Square Enix's first big MMORPG on a console, you were better off skipping it completely.

EyeToy/PlayStation Eye

Released: October 2003 (EyeToy), October 2007 (PlayStation Eye)

The Nintendo Wii's release in 2006 is when motion gaming really took off, leading to products like Sony's Move controllers and Xbox's Kinect, but Sony's been dabbling in motion controls since 2003, when it released the EyeToy on the PS2. It's a camera that films your movements and allows you to directly interact with a specific set of games. It's a neat idea, but considering my Xbox One's Kinect has a hard time registering my sweet dance moves in 2016, it's fair to say that the EyeToy was a bit ahead of its time in 2003. A dozen or so kid-friendly games were released between 2003 and 2008, and a few other titles added some bonus functionality if you had one plugged in, but the device was largely forgotten shortly after it was released.

Sony tried again, releasing the PlayStation Eye: an upgraded version of the EyeToy for PS3. And while there were certainly some interesting games that took advantage of it (like the physical card-based strategy game Eye of Judgement), it seemed that there were even fewer PlayStation Eye-exclusive games, with the majority of games merely using it as a way to record videos or take pictures.

PlayStation Move

Released: September 2010

The PlayStation Eye got a new lease on life when the PlayStation Move hit stores in 2010, as the camera was required to track the glowing ice-cream-ping-pong-ball-things found on Sony's new motion controllers. And to Sony's credit, the controllers work really well, thanks to the combination of quality tech inside the controller and the motion tracking provided by the camera.

But a solid peripheral is only as good as the software you create for it, and most of the games that made use of it were either existing titles with Move functionality shoehorned in (like Heavy Rain), Wii ports, minigame collections, or gimmicky bargain bin fodder. It's not that the games were bad, exactly - in fact, some of the Move-enabled games are actually quite good - but there was never a killer app that gave Sony's controllers the same level of success as Nintendo's Wii. While Sony shipped over 15 million Moves by 2012, the lack of any games worth owning meant the it would have eventually died in relative obscurity… if it hadn't been saved by the upcoming PlayStation VR headset and its Move-compatible titles.

PlayStation 3D Display

Released: November 2011

There was a hot minute when 3D TVs were the thing in consumer tech, and Sony had some interesting ideas for how the PlayStation could leverage that technology. The PlayStation 3D Display was an entry level model that included its patented ‘Simulview’ technology, which allows two players get their own full-sized screen during multiplayer games by wearing special 3D glasses and sitting on opposite viewing angles. While the Simulview technology works, the TV itself is tiny and poor quality, especially for the original asking price of $499. To add insult to injury, there are only seven PS3 games that even support Simulview, the most recent game being MLB 13 The Show.

PlayStation Mobile

Released: October 2012

Sony created PlayStation mobile as a way for independent developers to easily create and release games on Android phones, as well as the PlayStation Vita (and eventually the PlayStation TV). It was a humble initiative, and there were a ton of great, unique little games you couldn't find anywhere else. And now you won't be able to find them at all, because Sony shut the service down in 2015.

It makes sense for Sony to cancel the program, considering that the publisher's stance on independently released titles has loosened greatly since the release of the PS4. It's easier than ever to get a development kit and make PS4 and Vita games, and it doesn't make sense to split releases up on multiple storefronts. But the loss of PlayStation Mobile means over 100 games are no longer available to buy or even redownload if you've purchased them already, effectively causing great games like Tokyo Jungle Mobile to be forever lost to time.

Wonderbook

Released: November 2012

The tagline for Wonderbook is "One book, a thousand stories". Unfortunately, there are only four. The augmented reality storybook launched in 2012 alongside the Harry Potter-themed Book of Spells, and wouldn't get its three other titles for another year, eventually getting Diggs Nightcrawler, Walking With Dinosaurs, and another Harry Potter-themed book, Book of Potions, by November 2013. Lack of interest in Move titles and a push toward the PS4 all but assured that Wonderbook was dead on arrival.

PlayStation TV

Released: November 2013 (Japan), October 2014 (North America)

Sigh. Where to begin? So, conceptually, PlayStation TV is great. It's a $99 device that gets you into the PlayStation ecosystem. You can use your PS3 or PS4 controllers, you can stream your PS4's video output to any TV that it's hooked up to, you can play from a selection of Vita-compatible titles, and you can use streaming apps like Hulu Plus or Crackle. When it first launched, there was a ton of potential… which went absolutely nowhere.

Streaming from your PS4 to the PSTV is hit-or-miss. The list of games that you can play is decent, covering a wide swath of Vita, PSOne, and PSP games, but the list of currently incompatible games doesn't always make sense, and support for newer games has all but ceased. The included memory is a paltry 1GB, and the proprietary Vita memory cards are ridiculously expensive. Oh, and there's no freakin' Netflix support. How you make Roku-like box and fail to include Netflix is beyond me. This could have been an amazing device, but it's as if Sony shoved this thing out the door and completely forgot it existed within a month or two. Shame.

What does that mean for PlayStation VR?

Despite all these previous missteps, I'm hopeful for the future of PlayStation VR, as Sony seems to have its head on straight this time. It's courting both mainstream and independent developers to create exclusive experiences for the PlayStation. The PS4 has been a runaway success, with over 55 million consoles sold over two years (compared to the 80 million PS3s sold as of 2013), meaning there's already a huge audience available to sell headsets to. It's getting the VR tech right, it's got the price right, and buzz seems to be high - but the same could have been said for the Move when it was announced.

The real test for PlayStation VR's viability isn't its launch, but how it handles the first year. Sony CEO Kaz Hirai has stated that there are over 100 games in development, which is a great thing to hear. And the fact that Sony is considering opening up the device to PC gaming as well would be huge for more budget-conscious PC gamers looking for a cheaper way into the world of VR. Virtual reality seems to be the 'big thing' right now, and Sony is getting in on the ground floor, releasing its headset only a few months after the Rift and Vive - unlike its attempts to cash in on motion gaming with the Move a year after that ship had sailed.

So everything seems aligned for Sony to make PlayStation VR a success in a way that its other peripherals haven't been. Here's hoping that it continues to build on this momentum so we have something we're still excited to talk about five years from now, instead of a $400 paperweight you pull out of the closet every couple of months to play Rez for the umpteenth time.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Roberts lives in Everett, WA with his wife and two kids. He once had to sell his full copy of EarthBound (complete with box and guide) to some dude in Austria for rent money. And no, he doesn't have an amiibo 'problem', thank you very much.

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